Insight Guides: Experience New York City - Insight Guides (2016)
CHELSEA, FLATIRON, AND GRAMERCY
Find the spirit of bohemian New York at the Hotel Chelsea and tuck into a plate of lobster paella
Polaris / eyevine
The floors may be warped in places, many rooms have no views, there are no hairdryers or extra towels, and some complain the place is downright creepy, but no hotel in New York City can claim the bohemian artistic heritage of the Hotel Chelsea. Long-term residents included Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, and Arthur C. Clarke (who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey here); the place was a favorite haunt of Patti Smith, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Andy Warhol shot Chelsea Girls here in 1966, documenting the lives of Factory alumni living here, such as Edie Sedgwick, and the 1986 film Sid and Nancy depicts the murder of Nancy Spungen by Sid Vicious in their room on the ground floor in 1978. The general public isn’t allowed past the lobby, so taking an inexpensive room is the best way to explore the place - the grand staircase stretches up 12 flights, its walls are lined with art by guests and visitors, and the dark corridors with spots of peeling paint feel as though they belong in a state mental institution. Not for everyone, but a treat for the culturally inclined.
Old New York also lives next door to the Hotel Chelsea at the Spanish restaurant El Quijote, serving plates piled high with lobster and seafood paella along with pitchers of first-rate sangria in a traditional decor that feels like Madrid circa 1955. Don’t expect first-rate service here, but instead enjoy a glimpse of old-school New York in one of the few traditional Spanish restaurants left in the city.
Hotel Chelsea, 222 W. 23rd St; tel: 212-243-3700; www.hotelchelsea.com; [map] C4 (closed for renovations; reopening early 2017)
El Quijote, 226 W. 26th St; tel: 212 929-1855; [map] C4
Seek out contemporary culture and the home of a Christmas legend
Chelsea’s scene encompasses more than gay life on the popular Eighth Avenue strip and the art galleries around Tenth Avenue (for more information, click here). The Irish Repertory Company (132 W. 22nd St, tel: 212-727-2737, www.irishrep.org, [map] D3), in a former warehouse, stages Irish and Irish-American works; the New York Live Arts (219 W. 19th St, tel: 212-924-0077, www.newyorklivearts.org; [map] C3) presents more than 110 performance by some 45 companies and performers every year; and the Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Ave, tel: 212-242-0800, www.joyce.org, [map] C4), in a renovated 1941 art film house, hosts international dance companies.
A bit farther west, the neighborhood turns its back on contemporary culture and is cloaked in the 19th century. Cushman Row, as 20th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues is known, recalls a more genteel era of real-estate development: a block of Greek Revival houses, built by speculators in 1840, are richly embellished with ornate windows and elaborate ironwork. The tree-shaded lawns of the General Theological Seminary (pictured; 21st St, between Ninth and Tenth aves, [map] B4), a block beyond, provide one of the city’s most delightful retreats. Clement Clarke Moore, professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at Columbia University, left his mark in more ways than one. He donated part of his estate (named Chelsea) to the seminary. He also wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas, a poem that is still in the repertoire of all kids awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
Delight in the gourmet offerings of Chelsea Market
Nowitz Photography/Apa Publications
The block of Ninth Avenue between 15th and 16th streets has long been beloved in culinary circles. From the 1890s, the brick complex housed the Nabisco cookie factory. The famous Oreo was invented here in 1912, and huge ovens turned out billions of the cream-filled sandwich cookies over the next half-century.
These days the twisting, brick-walled hallways, decorated here and there with gears and other artifacts from the former factory, are home to Chelsea Market. Purveyors of some of the city’s most delectable foodstuffs operate in the market, and on a stroll through the main food court you will encounter baked goods (Amy’s Breads, Sarabeth’s, and Eleni’s), Italian cheeses and pastas (Buon Italia), wine (the Chelsea Wine Vault), kitchen wares (Bowery Kitchen Supply), and much more. You can enjoy your selections at tables and benches throughout the market.
The former factory floors upstairs are occupied by several television studios, including, appropriately, the Food Network.
Chelsea Market, Mon-Fri 7am-8pm, Sat 7am-7pm, Sun 8am-6pm; [map] B3
A chelsea market alternative
Essex Street Market, on the Lower East Side at 120 Essex Street ([map], C3), was created in 1940 as part of a scheme to clear city streets of pushcarts and stalls that were blocking traffic and hindering police and fire vehicles. The market became a gathering spot for the Lower East Side’s Italian and Jewish residents, and after recent renovation, is once again filled with stalls selling meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, cheese, and delicious baked goods. The market is open Mon-Sat 8am-7pm.
Get some interior inspiration at ABC Carpet and indulge in a chic sweet at City Bakery
Decor aficionados salivate at the thought of a shopping spree at ABC Carpet (preferably if someone else is picking up the tab). This boho-luxury furniture and home wares emporium is a New York institution known to induce fevers in those vulnerable to sticker shock, but it is unparalleled in its ability to inspire interior designer wannabes. Walk the creaky floors in this high-ceilinged Beaux-Arts building, and explore six levels of furniture, linen, house wares, and electronics. The furniture is both new and antique, ranging from industrial, Danish modern, 18th-century French, and Asian to modern retailers like Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams or Ralph Lauren. There are real finds here from around the world, such as Venetian chandeliers from Murano glass factories, Indonesian wedding beds, organic towels and linens, and, of course, piles and piles of carpets of all sizes, colors, and origins at the satellite store across the street at 881 Broadway - ABC Carpet is above all, the largest carpet and rug retailer in the world.
When you’ve reached design saturation, head to City Bakery for the best salad bar in the city, or for one of their signature pick-me-ups, such as the pretzel croissant or their rich, thick hot chocolate with a homemade giant marshmallow. The salad bar serves Asian-inspired dishes (Thai saffron rice with Lotus seeds; pesto soba noodle salad; grilled pineapple with ancho chili) or yummy comfort food like mac & cheese, or red bean and tomato stew with chipotle and lime. Take a seat on the main floor, or look down at the bustling crowd from upstairs in this large airy space with an industrial feel.
ABC Carpet, 888 Broadway; [map] E2
City Bakery, 3 W. 18th St; [map] D3
Savor old New York around Gramercy Park
Gramercy Park is the city’s most elitist greensward. Only those fortunate enough to live on the periphery of the square block of trees and gardens are allowed beyond the locked gates. Even so, millions of less privileged New Yorkers who can only peer through the iron fence don’t seem to mind, and they speak proudly of the refuge from which they are excluded as one of the city’s great treasures.
Irving Place, a remarkably well-preserved bastion of Old New York, runs south from the park to 14th Street. The handsome street, lined in part with refined brownstones, is forever linked with two literary New Yorkers. Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, lent his name to the street, but claims that he lived in the Washington Irving House, at 17th Street, are unfounded. The house was, however, home to a famous turn-of-the-20th-century lesbian couple, Elisa de Wolfe, an actress and interior designer, and Elisabeth Marbury, a powerful literary agent. Their salon, where Sarah Bernhardt was likely to rub shoulders with Astors and Vanderbilts, was well known.
O. Henry merely drank on the street, at nearby Pete’s Tavern (pictured). He penned some of America’s favorite short stories in the dark, woody interior, where he seems to have found the muse for his warm, witty depictions of late 19th- and early 20th-century life. Take a seat in Pete’s and ponder Irving’s magic-infused stories of early America in these atmospheric old environs.
Pete’s Tavern, 121 E. 18th St; tel: 212-473-7676; [map] F2
Check out the Chelsea gallery scene
The blocks of far West Chelsea, around Tenth and Eleventh avenues, have never been terribly hospitable, a grid of dark, untidy streets lined with grimy warehouses, printing houses, taxi garages, and factories. This urban setting, especially the blocks between 20th and 26th streets, is these days the world’s epicenter of contemporary art, home to more than 200 galleries. Chelsea galleries tend to be a bit snooty - they do not as a rule go out of their way to extend a warm welcome. Even so, stepping in and out of these spaces is a quintessential New York experience and an illuminating introduction to the current art scene. Arm yourself with a free Gallery Guide (available at any gallery) and a copy of M magazine, which features detailed listings, maps and reviews. Your tour should include the building at 529 West 20th Street, where dozens of galleries are spread over nine floors, and the block of West 24th Street between 10th and 11th avenues, a line-up of some of the city’s finest galleries, including Gladstone Gallery (515), Metro Pictures (519), Mary Boone Gallery (541), and Gagosian Gallery (555).
You’ll encounter another art work on West 22nd Street between 10th and 11th avenues. Trees growing along the sidewalk were planted by German artist Joseph Beuys - a welcome presence on these harsh city streets.
Most Chelsea galleries are open Tue-Sat 10am-6pm; [map] B5
Take the high road on the High Line, a sanctuary from the city bustle, by day and by night
Marley White/NYC & Co
Not too much gets a unanimous nod of approval from New Yorkers, but the High Line is one of those rare exceptions. Just about everyone seems to have something good to say about this elevated promenade, a refreshing strip of greenery that cuts an aerial swath through the heart of Chelsea, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues all the way from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street.
The High Line is a disused railway trestle that once handled train traffic up and down the West Side, a supply route for factories and warehouses. Fountains, patches of greenery (some cultivated from the wild plants that took root on the abandoned tracks), and benches line the route, reached by staircases from the streets below.
As you follow the High Line you can peer down into the Meatpacking District and other old industrial neighborhoods below. At 17th Street, the view south extends all the way across New York Harbor to the Statue of Liberty. At 18th Street, the Empire State Building looms into view. Some of New York’s most exciting new architecture has risen around the High Line, including a curvaceous glass creation by Frank Gehry at Eleventh Avenue and 18th Street.
At sunset, an orange glow hangs over the Hudson River, and discreet lighting along the route ensures that the night sky, enlivened here and there with a faint star, provides a romantic canopy above the route. Weekday mornings the walkways are uncrowded, a quiet sanctuary as the workaday city rushes by below.
The High Line; 7am-10pm daily; www.thehighline.org; [map] B3-5
Enjoy a cocktail in a glamorous lounge and dine like a sophisticate at the Gramercy Tavern
It’s hard to not be impressed by the paintings by Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, and Richard Prince hanging at The Gramercy Park Hotel. They were chosen by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who masterminded a dramatic redesign of the lobby and bars of this historic hotel in 2003 when it was bought by former Studio 54 owner and hotel impresario Ian Schrager. The creative revamp succeeds in respecting the bohemian past of this legendary hotel (Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney lived here; past guests include Bob Dylan, The Clash, and David Bowie) while injecting some modern high-end glamour. Today, the hotel attracts the moneyed international art set (Karl Lagerfeld and members of the Whitney family own apartments here), so settle in for some people-watching as you shoot some pool in the main lounge, or sip on a cocktail in an oversized armchair by the fire. And you’re sure to overhear interesting conversation seated at the adjacent smaller bar.
Continue indulging in good taste and worldly sophistication at the Gramercy Tavern a few blocks away, a city favorite for drinks or a high-end meal. It is a cozy and refined spot, with its high ceilings, dark-wood beams, dramatic floral arrangements, subdued lighting, and mature buzz in the air. The bartenders are well informed and will help you choose the right wine or dish from the top-notch menu. Or, sit in the main dining area or in the more secluded (and expensive) back room and spoil yourself by ordering the gourmet tasting menu.
The Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Ave at 21st St, www.gramercyparkhotel.com; [map] F3
Gramercy Tavern, 42 E. 20th St; tel: 212-477-0777; www.gramercytavern.com; [map] E3
Swing a golf club in January or skate indoors in July at Chelsea Piers
The Chelsea Piers Sports and Entertainment Complex is a sprawling 30-acre sports village on the Hudson River that offers year-round golf, skating, rock-climbing, bowling, and intensive sports training. This is where luxury transatlantic liners would arrive and depart from 1910-30 (the Titantic was scheduled to dock here, but instead it became the drop-off point for its rescued lifeboats). Today, the piers house the city’s largest training center for gymnastics, two basketball courts, a bowling alley, fields for soccer and lacrosse, as well as a golf club, two full-sized skating rinks, and film, TV, and photo studios.
The golf club (Pier 59; tel: 212-336-6400) has a multistoried driving range overlooking the river open year-round (the stalls are heated in winter), and lessons are available from PGA pros.
The only year-round skating rinks (Pier 61; tel: 212-336-6100) in the city are open for general skating daily in the afternoons. Indoor baseball batting cages (between Piers 61 and 62; tel: 212-336-6500) with different pitching speeds can be rented for half-hour or hour-long sessions. 300 bowling (between Piers 59 and 60; tel: 212-835-2695) is a state-of-the-art 32-lane bowling alley, complete with cocktail bar, video screens, and a grill menu.
After flexing your muscles, treat yourself to a massage or a sauna at The Spa (Pier 60; tel: 212-336-6780), grab a slice at Artichoke Basille’s (114 10th Ave; tel: 212-792-9200). Their famous artichoke pizza is the perfect way to cap off a day of calorie-burning sports. You won’t feel guilty when you eat the whole pie because, hey you’ve earned it!
Chelsea Piers between 17th and 23rd streets and the West Side Highway; www.chelseapiers.com; [map] A4
Be a night owl in K Town
Marley White/ NYC & Company
The city that never sleeps is especially nocturnal in Korea Town, as 32nd Street between Sixth and Fifth avenues is known. On the block-long strip you can dig into Korean barbecue, sing karaoke, or soak in a spa around the clock.
In dozens of restaurants, galbi (thinly sliced beef short ribs), jeyook gui (broiled pork), bugogi (sirloin), saeoo gae (jumbo shrimp), and other specialties are prepared at your table - either grilled over coals or sautéed on a hot griddle. Accompaniments are bibimbop (rice and vegetables) and bi bim naeng myun (noodles topped with kimchi, or pickled vegetables). Among the favorite places on the street to enjoy these delicacies are Shilla (37 W. 32nd St, tel: 212-967-1880), with a three-story tall dining room; Mandoo Bar (2 W 32nd St, tel: 212-279-3075), with its dumplings being made in the front window; and BCD Tofu House (17 W. 32nd St, tel: 212-967-1900), where a hearty tofu stew is the house specialty.
Wherever you dine, and whatever you order, you will probably wash down your meal with soju, a clear, potent liquor that looks and tastes quite a bit like vodka. After a few glasses you will be well primed to partake of K Town’s other great diversion, karaoke. The neighborhood’s two most popular venues are Chorus Karaoke (25 W. 32nd St, tel: 212-967-2244), and Duet 35 (53 W. 35th St, tel: 646-473-0827).
Should these exertions wear you out, the Juvenix Spa (25 W. 32nd St, fifth floor) is open at all hours to provide a sweat in a sauna made of semiprecious stones and a soak in a tub filled with sake, tea, and algae. If the weather is good, and midnight has not yet struck, you might want to make a stop at La Quinta Inn (17 W. 32nd St). Ascend to the Sun Roof, a pleasant aerie where cocktails are served until midnight - when the night is still young in this 24-hour neighborhood.
Korea Town; [map] E5
Ponder human sexuality at the Museum of Sex then watch flirtation in action at a lively outdoor bar
The Museum of Sex takes the subject seriously: its board of advisers is filled with historians and scholars, and the museum’s goal is to show the best in current thinking about human sexuality. Academic purpose aside, the exhibits are fun and informative, such as ‘Rubbers: the Life, History, and Struggle of the Condom’, ‘Graphic Sex in Japan,’ and ‘Sex and the Moving Image.’ The museum has more than 15,000 artifacts related to subjects of human sexuality, and houses a research and multimedia library. The explicit nature of the material, however, means admittance is restricted to those 18 and older.
To see the human mating game in real life on a warm day, head to the Frying Pan, a 1929 lightship tethered to Pier 66 at West 26th Street and the West Side Highway. The boat and the pier have been converted into a large bustling bar and casual eating spot, where buckets of Corona, burgers, and clams are served up with a fabulous view of the Hudson River. Plastic chairs are on deck, the interior is barnacle-encrusted with worn couches, an exposed engine room, and bands or DJs playing on occasion in the belly of the boat. Those prone to seasickness are counseled to remain on dry land and enjoy the Tiki Bar.
In winter months, the artistic crowd in the neighborhood packs The Breslin Bar in the trendy Ace Hotel. Wood flooring, high ceilings, and a vintage mahogany bar give this gastro pub an old-world, gentleman’s club feel, respectful of the hotel’s 1904 origins.
Museum of Sex, 233 Fifth Ave at 28th St; tel: 212-689-6337; www.museumofsex.com; 11am-6.30pm, Sun-Fri, Sat 11am-8pm; [map] E4
The Frying Pan, Pier 66 at W. 26th St; tel: 212-989-6363; May-Oct; [map] A5
Indulge in paper and craft products in the ‘Paper District’ on West 18th Street
Nowitz Photography/Apa Publications
The digital world seems far way on West 18th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues: three shops here specialize in paper for invitations, projects, presentations, wrapping, and letters, and tucked in the middle of the block is the city’s best children’s bookstore.
Paper Presentation (23 W 18th St) and Print Icon (125 W 21st St) are both paradise for graphic designers and creative types, selling paper and envelopes in all colors, sizes, and textures, along with services for printing stationery, invitations, or business cards. Print Icon is the printer of choice for ad agencies and graphic designers working in the area, and you can watch the presses roll at the back of the shop. Paper Presentation has everything for the scrap-booker and card-designer: watch you don’t get lost in a creative fog going through the huge choice of stickers, glitter, ribbons, pens, markers, and rubber stamp pads. A. I. Friedman (no. 44) runs the width of a city block, and sells paper, agendas, picture frames and albums, art portfolios, interesting messenger bags, and office furniture.
For a great selection of classic and new children’s books, pop into Books of Wonder (no. 19), the oldest and largest independent children’s bookstore in the city, specializing in children’s literature, with its own cute cafe serving brightly decorated cakes and cookies. Classical music fans will love Academy Records and CDs a couple of doors down (no. 12), the city’s best source for used classical, jazz, and showtune LPs and CDs.
The Paper District, W. 18th St; [map] D3